Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In defense of pragmatism

In a recent commissioning service for IMB missionaries, Jerry Rankin challenged his audience to follow the example of the apostle Paul. That is, they should adopt a “‘wigtake’ attitude – to do ‘whatever it's going to take’ to get the Gospel to all peoples.” Whether “wigtake” will become the next new buzzword in missions I don’t know (I’ve heard at least one professor at Southern Seminary use it in class), but it does suggest to me an interesting question: What is the role of pragmatism in missions and evangelism?

I for one believe the word “pragmatism” has unfairly gotten a bed rep. Perhaps it is because many define pragmatism by the old maxim “the end justifies the means.” Perhaps it is because we blame pragmatism for the many excesses and examples of outrageous outreach practices among some evangelicals. Perhaps it is because we have become leery of meaningless numbers[1] -- inflated statistics, large numbers of “decisions” or even baptisms that do not result in real church growth -- all seemingly as a result of pragmatism. Put that all together and you find that for many, pragmatism has become something of a dirty word.

I am sympathetic to those who try to avoid the pragmatic approach in favor of a strictly biblical one. Those of a theological mindset might say things like “just preach the Word” or “All I have to do is be obedient and leave the results up to God.” I should not focus on being pragmatic, rather, I should be focus on being “biblical.” While this attitude is pious and well intended, in my opinion it is overly simplistic. I say this because no matter how biblical we become, we still have practical choices to make for which we have no clear biblical direction. Take for instance the person who says “Just preach the word.” Great! I’m all for it. Now, which Scripture(s) are you going to preach? In what language? Which translation? Where will you preach? To whom? At what time of day? What will you wear while preaching? The choices go on and on.

Try another. “All I have to do is be obedient in evangelism.” Ok, now the practical questions: Whom will I evangelize? How will I approach them? When and where? How will I gain a hearing? Should I find a way to build a relationship? How? What approach will I take in conversation? How will I begin my gospel presentation? Will I use a Bible or tract? Should I call first or just cold call? Should I pop in a breath mint? Should my wife and I speak to this couple individually or together? Each circumstance has its own set of questions and choices to be made -- and most of them are biblically neutral.

At this point you have a decision to make. You can say that these questions (and others like them) are irrelevant as long as you are obedient to the biblical command. Or, you can say that at least some of these decisions may have a bearing on the effectiveness of the effort. If you choose the options you think will be more effective, like it or not, you are a pragmatist.

Now, I will grant that not every choice is appropriate – some ideas are unbiblical and should be avoided. I am not suggesting that we should ever do something unbiblical just because it works. At the same time, if given the choice between two equally biblical alternatives—one that might work and one that probably won’t—am I more spiritual if I choose the latter and appeal to Divine sovereignty? In such a case, I will choose what works. The glory still belongs to the Lord. As one of my professors often reminded us, pragmatic means practical. Is it more spiritual to be impractical?

Here, then, is my two cents: Let us be diligent in evaluating everything we do by the words of Scripture. Let us also do whatever it’s going to take to bring the gospel to the world. Let us be biblical and pragmatic. Let us be biblical pragmatists.

[1] Admit it, you thought that wigtake meant “whatever it’s going to take to have impressive statistics to report on the Annual Church Profile.” :- )

Friday, July 20, 2007

Is the focus on Unreached People Groups mandated by Scripture?

This week, Wade Burleson has provided his readers with another summary of the IMB trustee meetings. One part was of particular interest to me. Burleson reports concerning Jerry Rankin’s report to the board: “[A particular trustee asked Dr. Jerry Rankin after his address to the trustees], ‘Dr. Rankin, I only ask because I'm curious and have heard this said before. Is your focus on the unreached people groups driven by an eschatalogical motive?’ Dr. Rankin answered by quoting Matthew 24:16 [sic], 'The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to the whole world, and then the end shall come' and said that eschatology does not compel the IMB's mission (or his), but obedience does. Dr. Rankin said the timing of the coming of the Son is up to the Father and nothing we do will define when He comes. It is up to God. We are simply to obey His commission."

This trustee’s question is pertinent because if a particular policy of the mission board is in place because of theological reasons, and those theological views prove erroneous (or at least questionable), then the board is on shaky ground. Indeed, one of the perennial problems of missions and evangelism methodologies is that the supporters of those policies often attempt to justify their chosen model as mandated by Scripture – often using less that sound hermeneutical principles.

The Unreached People Group (UPG) strategy has been a topic of continued discussion among my missions buddies. Of particular concern has been the theological justification made for such a strategy. There are those who do in fact find theological support if not a mandate for a UPG strategy. For some, an interpretation of Matt 24:14 which suggests that the Lord will not (or can not) return until the Great Commission is fulfilled; i.e., the last people group is reached. This is based also on an understanding of the Greek phrase panta ta ethne in the Great Commission as referring to ethnolinguistic groups. (I personally hold neither of these views, though a number of my colleagues do).

There are good reasons to question this view:

Assuming that Matt 24:14 is speaking of the second coming of Christ (which is not universally accepted, as some scholars believe this is a reference to the destruction of the temple in 70AD -- see Matt 24:2), note the following:

1. Even if the spread of the gospel is a prerequisite to the return of Christ, but this does not mean that we can in any way hasten the return of Christ. God may be waiting for those who have already heard the gospel to respond, for yet unborn future believers, or waiting until his own appointed time and good pleasure. (cf. 2 Pet 3.9)
2. What does it mean that the gospel will be preached in all the world.. to all nations? – every region? Every geo-political entity? Every people group? Every individual? – How will we know when we have completed the task?
3. Jesus told us that it is not for us to be concerned about the timing of the second coming but to be his witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:6-8).

All this is to say, that in my opinion, (echoing the answer given by Dr. Rankin) it is much more important to obey the command of Christ and be about the business of taking the gospel to all than it is to focus on the timing of the second coming and how we might hurry it along.

As far as panta ta ethne in the Great Commission, despite my respect for men like Donald McGavran and John Piper, I think it is in error to translate this as "people group." I am more inclined to agree with those exegetes who see the phrase as a general reference to the whole world -- i.e. all of humanity. A better case for people group strategy might be made from passages like Rev. 5:9. In any case, it is difficult to make a real case that the UPG strategy is Scripturally mandated.

While I believe the UPG strategy is a good one, I don't believe it is necessarily mandated by Scripture. What IS commanded is that we take the gospel to the world. The real reason to adopt the UPG strategy is on pragmatic grounds. That is, we should focus on UPGs because this strategy is the best way to be obedient to the Great Commission in this period of Christian Missions. This focus is the best way today to bring the gospel to as many people as possible in a way that they can hear, understand, and respond. In this era of missions, a focus on UPGs makes sense. Of course, things may be different in the future. In the wake of globalization and the seemingly constant (if gradual) change in the number and makeup of ethnolinguistic people groups, there may be a need in the future for a change in strategy. For now, I personally believe a focus on UPGs is the best way to be obedient to the Great Commission.

Finally, regardless of how one views the particulars of the UPG strategy or the reasons behind it, it is important for missionaries, practitioners, and their supporters to continually be in dialog about how we can be obedient to God's command to reach the nations.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How Can I Be a Witness to Lost Christians?

In a post-Christian America, evangelism is becoming increasingly more difficult. It is not that the gospel has changed – it hasn’t – but it is increasingly more difficult to clearly articulate the gospel to a culture who, to a large extent, is nominally Christian. For anyone who lives in the South or Midwest, most people have heard a simple presentation of the gospel and many have responded to a gospel invitation of one kind or another. It seems that one large category of lost people I know identify themselves as “born again” Christians. That is, they know and believe the facts about Jesus, have prayed the sinner’s prayer, and may have even been baptized (by immersion as a “believer”). Their gospel formula is believe these facts, pray this prayer, do this religious acts and your are a Christian. The problem is, their lives have not changed at all. There is no sign of true repentance. There are none of the evidences of regeneration. They have, as Billy Graham used to say, got enough of a dose of Christianity to inoculate them from the real thing. They call themselves Christians. Many even have fond emotional sentiment toward Jesus and may even pray. Yet, their fruit indicates they are most likely lost.

In my secular employment, I have several of these “Christian” friends. Of course they rarely attend church, cuss like sailors, sleep around, “party” (sometimes with illegal substances) all while claiming a “personal relationship with God.” It seems to me there is something wrong with an evangelism where these kinds of Christians are the result. Many have written on the woes of modern evangelism presentations so I will not belabor the point here. My concern is Where do we go from here? If I share a simple gospel message with these friends, they are willing to affirm everything I offer. So here is my dilemma—how to share the gospel of Christ with those who need Him but already think they know Him.